Remembering children’s author Jewel Kats

Jewel Kats was the inspiration behind Archie Comics characters Harper.
Jewel Kats was the inspiration behind Archie Comics character Harper Lodge.

The pen was a powerful tool in the hands of Jewel Kats. The author of 11 children’s books, she wrote the kinds of stories that she never read growing up, ones that featured people with disabilities like her.

Using her pen, she crafted characters that were heroes of their own stories and featured people who were empowered by their disability and not limited by it. Disabilities were something to be celebrated. Kats called her stories “fairy ability tales.” Her books included such titles as Cinderella’s Magical Wheelchair: An Empowering Fairy Tale, The Princess and the Ruby: An Autism Fairy Tale and DitzAbled Princess.

Born Michelle Meera Katyal, Kats, who studied journalism at the Story Arts Centre in East York, died on Jan. 7 due to complications of a bowel obstruction. She was 37.

Probably best known as the real-life inspiration behind Harper Lodge, the first and only Archie Comics character to be in a wheelchair, Kats’ confidence was matchless.

A long-time fan of Archie Comics, Kats approached Dan Parent, the current artist and writer, at a comic book convention in 2013. She asked him why there wasn’t a single character with a disability. Unable to give a good answer, Parent worked with her to create Harper, an advice columnist with the same fearless personality as Kats.

Kats’ mother, Renu Katyal, said she was overjoyed and immensely proud.

“Every parent wants to see success in their child and this was a big success,” she said.

From an early age, Kats was recognized for her writing talent. Although she only spoke Hindi until she reached school, she learned English quickly and developed a passion for writing and books. Her essays and writings always managed to catch her teachers’ attention.

When she was nine, none of the offerings at the school book fair interested Kats so her mother decided to take her to the bookstore at the mall. It was there that somebody hit their car and caused severe damage to Kats’ leg.

“Her accident was because of books,” Katyal said.

The next three months of her life would be spent at the Hospital for Sick Children recovering from the accident. During this time, she found her comfort in Archie Comics, starting a life-long love affair.

As Kats got older, her bubbly and affectionate personality would win over many hearts and the impact of her words would extend beyond the page.

Colleen Fisher Tully experienced first-hand the power of Kats’ words. The two were classmates at Centennial College studying journalism and working on the East York Observer together. Fisher Tully recalls that she used to have a bad habit of making disparaging marks about herself. She didn’t even notice most of the time.

Early in the semester when they didn’t know each other very well, Kats caught Fisher Tully making such a remark. Kats approached, looking straight at her.

“Why do you do that to yourself?” she asked. “You’re beautiful.”

Fisher Tully said the look Kats gave her went right into her soul and healed her.

“I haven’t made such a remark since,” she said. “That was Jewel. She had no time for negativity. There was no reason for it.”

Kats was the recipient of many awards and honours during her lifetime. During the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, she was asked to be a flag bearer.

“She was in a tremendous amount of pain that day,” Katyal recalls. “I told her ‘hang (on). This is your dream.’”

Kats did, and was so excited to have been chosen.

Recently, Kats was named by Conversations magazine as one of the Top 25 Women Changing the World.

Editor-in-chief Cyrus Webb said he chose Kats because of the example she set for everyone. Kats was someone who worked to erase boundaries and not use excuses. She got the most out of life, he said.

“She never let her disability define her, “ Webb said. “She impacted people just by the way she lived.”

Even though Kats leaves behind an impressive body of work, for those closest to her, she will be remembered for her confidence and her passion for working with children. She wanted every girl with a disability to know that she is a princess with a story that is worth being told.

Those wishing to honour Kats’ memory with a donation are asked to contribute to the Hospital for Sick Children at my.sickkidsdonations.com/jewelkats